Sunday, October 23, 2016

The undeniable importance of grieving

Minutes after landing at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, I see a text message that my 49-year old Aunt has passed away.  No, it doesn’t come as a surprise; to see ‘her’ is the reason why I am in India in the first place.  I had been prepared for the devastatingly sad event by my family who told me the previous day that she was on life support and that she would not survive.  I don’t have much time to let anything sink in because I have a very short transit.  As I board my connecting flight to Chennai, why is it that I feel a sudden urge to encapsulate of all of my memories of my Aunt into a few minutes as though I am running a highlights reel in my mind?  It’s a strange feeling that the mind goes into overdrive while the rest of the body feels anesthetized.  Numb.  Totally numb.  Slowly the numbness wears off.  And, seething anger towards a supreme power (“supreme” and “power” seem such unlikely terms in the wake of a death) that I hope exists up above, is one of the first emotions that I feel.  Then I land in Chennai and see some of my family members at the airport.  Suddenly, I snap out of the maelstrom of emotions.  “There are people to console,” I tell myself.  To begin with, an 80-year old mother that has lost her daughter, a 12-year old daughter that has lost her mother.  Surely their loss is greater than mine, I convince myself. 

In the next few hours, I see every close family member and every meaningful friend that my Aunt had.  Some of her friends are people that attended my first birthday celebrations.  So, you can get a sense for the history we share collectively.  As the final rites are performed, I see everyone consoling everyone else.  Some of my Aunt’s friends console me and my other family members.  Another family member, probably with the hope of squeezing out every ounce of grief, extends to a friend that most comforting of gestures – a hug.  All this while, I feel like I am in an entirely quiet zone, continuing to run that highlights reel in my mind.  Finally, I accompany my Uncle, my parents, my Aunt’s friends and a few other family members to the crematorium.  That is where it hits me.  The sight of people getting my Aunt prepared to be turned into a pot of ashes yanks me out of my own daze.  And, that maelstrom of feelings that I had been experiencing, finds my eyes to be an apt conduit to erupt out of.  I am incredibly thankful for the fact that one of my Aunt’s dear buddies of 30 years, is nearby – equally submerged under the weight of his emotions – to ensure that I feel that I am not alone.  An hour later, what gets submerged is the pot of ashes in the nearby Besant Nagar beach as the priest overseeing the final rites directs my Uncle to have his back to the waters as he throws the pot over his shoulders.  Watching this rather pointed direction from the priest, one of my Amma’s cousins comments, “We are a very practical people.”   Are we?  More on that in a bit.

Cut to the present…

It’s been nearly three weeks since the above events happened.  And, I feel like I have had a complete grieving experience.  Sure, my Aunt’s memories will be in my mind continually for the rest of my life given what an important mother figure, sister figure and friend she was in my life.  But the short term impact of this life event taught me a few important lessons.  One is what Professor Morrie Schwartz mentioned in the wonderful, illuminating book on life, loss and death, “Tuesdays with Morrie.”  When asked by his student as to how he dealt with grief, he talked about how he faced it head-on, going through it and coming out the other side.  (I pictured going through a dark tunnel to see light at the end.)  When reflecting on my experience from three weeks ago, I realized the importance of fully being aware of one’s grieving process, identifying what works for you– some internalize while just focusing on the happy memories, others cry out loud, some wail about the unfairness of it all, others ruminate on the science around the illness – and immersing yourself fully, never once having the fear of being judged.  As with every theory, there is an exception.  And, that exception is that, while it is critically important to experience one’s own grief fully, it is also important to balance it with a focus on being there for others whom you think need you. 

Talking of being there for others, what also comes to mind are the people in the extended family and acquaintances (outside of the immediate circle) that call on the surviving family members.  In thamizh, there is a term called, “dhukkam vijarikardhu.”   I have never understood the true meaning of this term.  It translates into (bad) English as, “Asking about your sadness.”    People that call on the near and dear of the deceased, I feel, have a responsibility.  And that responsibility is to walk the tightrope walk between expressing your own sadness and giving strength and expressing support.  And, I feel that I saw people on both sides of this balance.  I remained a mute spectator as I witnessed my family listening to a few well-meaning but ill-timed comments from certain people.  Comments such as one from an old family member to my grandma -“What is the use of you and me living when she (my Aunt) is gone?”  Surely, not the advice that the Doctor ordered for my grandma, you would think.  

But all these reflections aside, that anger that I experienced towards the Almighty, thinking of the unfairness of it all, still persists.  And, that’s okay.  My family gives me the permission to ask my own unanswerable questions, trusting me to live with life’s glorious uncertainties, with those seemingly cruel vagaries of fate, all while assuming that things will look up, that there is some reason for these things to happen.  I haven’t accepted any ‘theory’ or ‘explanation’ for why this thing had to happen.  For the time being, I continue to face my own tough questions.  And, I continue to celebrate the life of my Aunt in my mind, over and over.  The show is over.  But the highlights will continue to play...

11 comments:

Anu Warrier said...

My sincere condolences for your loss, Ram. This was a very touching essay. May [whatever supreme power you believe in] give you the strength to bear this loss. Death is especially heart-breaking when it takes away the young. When you first mentioned your aunt's demise, my first thought was '49 is no age to die!' And so I can understand an older family member wondering why s/he and your 80-year-old grandmother are left behind while the younger generation pass away. For, in the natural order of things, they are not meant to light their children's pyres.

This essay resonated with me - I was 13 when my 39-year-old uncle passed away. My grandmother was barely 63.

Once again, my condolences. And a virtual hug.

Nandini said...

Nothing justifies Shoba's untimely death and I am still in denial. How can someone who was so full of life be gone so suddenly in a matter of a week?! Very well written, Ram. I really admire you for how you have handled this huge loss. You practised all that you have written. Although there are numerous ways to mourn, I really feel that your main focus was on remembering the good times with her and replaying it in your mind several times- so positive amist all the gloom. You have paved your own path to mourn and I'm sure you will have many more people follow you.
Shoba, we miss you but we will always remember the good times.

Ram Murali said...

Anu - thank you so much for your kind, empathetic words. I really appreciate it.

Nandu - thanks, ma. Yes, it's truly shocking and completely untimely and unfair. As Veena mentioned in a Whatsapp chat, "We just have memories to hold on to..."

newmomontheblock said...

My sincere condolences Ram. I think at times like these, words feel so inadequate. My mom passed away when was 48 in the most umimaginable way and I can honestly say that Time is the only healer. The unthinkable pain that was once there is no longer there and replaced by missing her during major milestones like weddings, birth etc. Sadly I have realized that life goes on.

I can share what a Gentleman shared with us when we visited us after my mom passed away. He talked about how he lost his son in Coimbatore bomb blasts in a second and said that in his quest to understand the senseless loss, he has realized that when we dont question the Almighty or God about why we were chosen when we are blessed with something beautiful, we must equaly accept in the same graceful way when we are dealt with huge blows. I know easier said than done......I pray for strength for your family to deal with this loss.

Ram Murali said...

newmomontheblock - thank you for such a wonderful comment and for sharing your gut-wrenching, heartbreaking experience with your mom's passing away. What that person mentioned around accepting the gifts and (what seems to be) curses with equanimity sounds very reasonable. But as with a lot of things reasonable, the heart refuses to accept it :)
Thank you, once again, for your kind words.

Ranganath said...

Below is the e-mail sent by my Uncle Ranga (whose wife- my Aunt Shoba - passed away; it is her passing away that I refer to in my article)

A beautiful description of your state of mind over a few weeks. Ram, Life doesn’t give answers to many questions if you approach it with a strong intellect. Living in the experience teaches us the best – and when I lived the experience with my 12 year old, a lot of knowledge emerged. Hers is the most traumatic of experiences – a girl completely devoted to her mother faced with a reality of that mother not being there anymore. Nothing can be more final, harsher and brutal than that.

Yes, like every other person, she too cried initially and asked the WHY questions. But what, I believe, she did with an innocence of a child, is sacrificed her unhappiness for her mother’s happiness. When she understood that her mother is supremely happy and completely healthy in Heaven now and that she would have continued to suffer if she had survived, she displayed true unselfish love. She stopped focusing on her grief, her loss, her more difficult future and just focused on a wonderful vision of a healthy bright mother in Heaven. Her happiness for her mother she so loved diminished her own unhappiness.

She dropped the “I” and “My” and simply shifted her focus to a positive vision! To me this is spirituality at its best. I remember Sri Sri saying once that your Guru can come in any form – and now I see Him in the form of an innocent (and mature) 12 year old.

Death takes away people from us, but also gives them a freedom beyond imagination – freedom from sickness, worries and everything negative. What can be more joyous or liberating for that soul?

If we grieve, it is therefore for our own selfish sake. Sri Lalita has shown us beautifully the path to walk. And happily the father follows hoping that others will too...

Warm regards,
Ranga

Ram Murali said...

(Ranga) Chithapa - your words of wisdom were beautiful, eloquent and quite simply inspirational. It offers me a whole new lens to look at grief through...
Thank you, once again...

ravishanker sunderam said...

Dear Ram :

After reading your essay, I simply couldnt find words to comment here but I cant refrain either.

The writing appears to be imbued with the spirit of the beloved departed.

Its not entirely the Ram I've known so far- this piece has come from some vast inner depth and core of your being so as to appear almost surreal.

Even as I write this I feel a certain stirring and an invisible hand almost seems to stop me.

Bless you.....

Kousi Murali said...

Ram-Your presence offered all of us so much of solace-I know how difficult it must have been for you to focus on the grief of others than to wail at your own grief-After you left, I was so depressed I did not get up from bed the whole next day-I then gathered myself for the same reason- to be there for my mother and the little one-
Even when they were bringing what was left of my beautiful Shobha, I had the task of keeping Srilalita occupied while they got everything ready. I think I was OK doing that and not crying in front of her.
Ranga
As you so succinctly put it, the only question the child asks is if Amma will have any more pain and she is satisfied when we say she does not. But nothing can replace Shobha or the vacuum that she has left.
The focus for all of us now is the child-I hope the Almighty will correct the mistake He made and make her grow up into as lovely a human being as her mother

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker -- thank you for your kind words and thoughts...
All of this support means a lot during this tough phase...

Amma (Kousi Murali) -- not much I can add on top of what you've written...:(

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ram Murali :"It’s a strange feeling that the mind goes into overdrive while the rest of the body feels anesthetized."

How true